julie-with-kids-at-zahle-camp.jpgWhen Steve and I started dating, we use to wrestle with each other. It was good, honest fun, I tell you. A 6’3″ gorgeous dark-haired man wrestling a 5’5″ woman, eighty pounds in weight under his. He had me in size, in weight, in strength. But the one thing I had in bigger quantity than him was persistence. I would keep coming back, even when he had both my arms pinned. I wouldn’t stop. I just wouldn’t say “uncle”!

I may not ever have won one of those awesome matches, but I never gave up!

One definition for persistence is this:

firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition

I have seen it other places besides my wrestling matches with Steve.

I have seen it in my sisters Susan and Jana. Their car hit by a train in 1983, and both severely wounded, neither gave up. Susan marched through her injuries and continued her studies at Colorado State University to become a veterinarian. Today she is a married woman of over 25 years and the vet you want your animals to have in an ER in Loveland, Colorado. She runs, she bikes, she camps and canoes, and she is an amazing nature photographer. (She is afraid of spiders, but that is another story!)

Susan never said “uncle.”

Anyone who knows Jana has seen the personification of persistence. We siblings who have known her all our lives refer to it more as stubbornness, but it is the same thing. Doctors said she would never recover and it was best just to let her go. Three weeks after the accident, although deeply in coma, her heart and brain would not quit, so they did surgery to repair all her broken bones. Doctors said she would never walk once she did come out of the coma. Six months after the surgery to repair those broken bones, she walked back into the Longmont United Hospital to embrace the doctor who did the surgery. She has traveled to Australia, Ecuador, Germany and the Czech Republic, and she has been back over and over to Washington, D.C., to advocate for poor and hungry people all over the world.

Jana has never said “uncle.”

Persistence. Stubbornness. Whatever you want to call it, we don’t say “uncle.”

There is a great parable in Luke chapter 18 that has been with me all week about another woman of stubborn persistence. And even though I am not a widow pleading my case before a judge, I am feeling some of her frustration and the need to persist:

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” (Luke 18:1-8, The Message)

Maybe I am impatient, but my cause is just. I don’t have a judge to plead to. But I have a persistent prayer about helping my brothers and sisters in Christ. I have been trying to use Facebook and Twitter and email to share the story of the church in Lebanon and Syria and Iraq with as many people as I can. I am trying to create an Internet flashmob, for lack of a better term. If you are my friend on Facebook, perhaps you are sick of my posts by now, but I can’t stop. They all contain the link below and I am trying to get it to go viral, so instead of the 320 views it has now, it will have 3,200 or 32,000…or 3,200,000!

Hope came down and pitched its tent is a mash up of John 1:14 and Hebrews 11:1:

The word became flesh and dwelled among us.

Now faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.

Those two verses have been with me for most of the past year as I came home from a trip to Lebanon and Syria. The children in that refugee camp had no business to be singing joyful songs and dancing with us in innocence. Didn’t they know where they were? Couldn’t they see the desolation of nothingness around them? The outhouses? The putrid drainage ditch? No parks, no trees…nothing!

And that’s when it came to me that they were seeing something else. They were seeing it with the eyes of their heart…with hope.

And they are persistent in their joy, and stubborn in their singing and dancing. They won’t say “uncle.”

And what they did see with their eyes and feel in warm embraces was the love of Christ in the person of Assis Fadi and Assis Ramsey, pastors of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. They hope because someone has given them something to hope for. The church has been walking in the camps bringing food and supplies and, well, love. They have been caring for others not in camps by supplying food and rent vouchers and helping children stay in school. They have provided medical care to those who need it.

In the midst of a war, surrounded by death and chaos, they have not said “uncle.”

And on their behalf, neither will I.

Damascus Symphony

A Greek Orthodox priest in the patriarchate, Damascus, Syria, Jan. 2014

A Greek Orthodox priest in the patriarchate, Damascus, Syria, Jan. 2014

I have been able to visit the ancient city of Damascus twice. The first time was in August, 2010, when I traveled with eight other women from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. with the Outreach Foundation. ( It is an amazing city! We saw the sights and met the people who lived there in peace. One of the many we met was a woman named Colette Khoury. An author in her own right, Madame Khoury is the granddaughter of Faris Khoury, a former prime minister of Syria (the only Christian to ever be so) and a founder of the United Nations.

This is me and Colette Khoury, in her Damascus apartment on a hot day in August, 2010.

This is me and Colette Khoury, in her Damascus apartment on a hot day in August, 2010.

We met so many wonderful people there, including those in the Presbyterian Church in Damascus.

In January, 2014, Steve and I were back in Damascus to encourage those brothers and sisters in the Damascus Church. We experienced amazing worship and fellowship and I think we shook hands and/or hugged everyone in that congregation, grown larger because of the refugees from the war in that city.

The differences in three and a half years were very apparent to me as we walked through the Christian quarter. The little Ananias Church is still there at the end of the alley off the street called Straight. It’s the place where Saul was baptized and renamed Paul. You can read about it in Acts chapter 11. What’s different is that many of the shops are closed because there is no tourist traffic there anymore. I wrote about it here:

Coffee and tea outside a shop in the Street called Straight, Damascus, Syria, Jan. 2014. The street was quiet except for the mortars we heard.

Coffee and tea outside a shop in the Street called Straight, Damascus, Syria, Jan. 2014. The street was quiet except for the mortars we heard.

Another change was in the sounds I heard. Yes, there were still honking horns and the call to prayer from multiple mosques, but there were also explosions from mortars falling near the city. “Welcome!”, the head of our security contingent said. Sadly, the people who live there have become accustomed to it.

One of the most wonderful sounds we heard was the sound of Greek Orthodox priests singing ancient texts in a church that dates to the third century, their voices resonating off the stone walls and floors. The only word I have to describe the sound is heavenly.

There was a symphony of sound all around us in those precious three days. And it pulled these words out of me:

Damascus just like every place has its notes and sounds
When you walk along its streets it totally surrounds
The honking horns of cars and cabs
The clack where cobblestone meets heel
Yella, yella, come here quickly!
Schweih, schweih, slow down! Tires squeal.

There are sounds that call five times a day
For the faithful to bow down in prayer
From loudspeakers perched on minarets slender
It comes from everywhere.

The early churches rooted here
Add sweet harmony to the air
Ancient songs of prayer and praise
Music fine and rare.

Other directors have added percussion
That we could not help but hear
Guns and mortars lobbed in anger
Causing some tremors of fear.

My prayer for this land of music so fine
Is that the orchestra gathered
Will remain in place for centuries still
That all will remember it mattered
That it takes the percussion, the woodwinds, the brass
It takes the family of strings
It takes everyone working together for peace
Each one of us, together, should sing!
God made us all, each one to reflect
Uniquely the range of his glory
Let our voices and lives blend harmoniously now
To continue his musical story.

I pray for the end of war. I pray for united nations and peoples. I pray for a symphony of peace.


The people I sleep with

Assis Boutrous Zaour, his wife Wafa and their three children, all amazing young people!

Assis Boutrous Zaour, his wife Wafa and their three children, all amazing young people!

Assis Joseph Kassab with me and Assis Adeeb Awad

Assis Joseph Kassab with me and Assis Adeeb Awad

Since Steve and I got married on May 18, 2002, we have slept in the same bed every night, with very few exceptions. It’s expected that a married couple would share the same bed, right? Well, I guess Lucy and Ricky on the old sitcom had separate beds, or at least that was the way early television and movies would have it!

The truth is, there have always been many people that went to bed with me before I met Steve…

Talal, a refugee from Aleppo, whom we met in the refugee camp

Talal, a refugee from Aleppo, whom we met in the refugee camp

I used to start my prayers every night with

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
Guard me safely through the night
And let me see the morning light.

That is not the way everyone said that prayer, but it was the way it was printed on the night light in the bedroom I shared with my sisters when we were very small. That’s where I learned that prayer when I could first read. Years later when I learned the version that went, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take,” it scared me that anyone could pray that way. “The morning light” vs. dying before waking, was a much brighter vision!

Either way, those prayers were always followed by the Lord’s Prayer, a Hail Mary, a Glory Be and then my list of family and friends whom I wanted God to protect and bless. It was a long list of people that came to bed with me.

Gladys Aboud of the synod in Beirut and Hala Bitar, a teacher at the Beirut Evangelical School for Girls and Boys

Gladys Aboud of the synod in Beirut and Hala Bitar, a teacher at the Beirut Evangelical School for Girls and Boys

There are many people that I pray for regularly. I think it is part of my call as a follower of Jesus to bring those I love and he loves before him; to bring to the foot of the cross all those I carry burdens for. I love them; he loves them more. He knows all their names before I speak them and what a comfort it is to walk with a God like that.

I still pray for my family. Oh! How I want their safety, their provision, their comfort. Let them see the morning light! I can’t help thinking as I sleep that I have many family already sitting with God in glory who died before I woke, their souls taken to a place where there is no worry. My mom. My dad. My baby sister Cathy. All are safe on the other side.

Rola Sleiman, the preacher at the church in Tripoli, a graduate of the Near East School of Theology

Rola Sleiman, the preacher at the church in Tripoli, a graduate of the Near East School of Theology

But here on this side of heaven, are still so many.

And this night and the next, they all go to bed with me and Steve. He is as aware of them as me. Steve has traveled to their homes with me to walk with them and learn from them what faith is. They pray for us. We pray for them. And God loves and knows us all.

Assis Boutrous  Zaour and Assis Ma'an Bitar

Assis Boutrous Zaour and Assis Ma’an Bitar

Sleep has been much harder to come by lately and I’m trying to find ways to encourage my body to get to a restful state so once I am in bed, sleep will come. Last evening I took a half hour’s walk as the sun was still up but with a shadow cast upon it by the moon as a partial eclipse was happening. And as I walked my mind had a slideshow, a veritable mental Power Point of all the people who come to bed with me: pastors and preachers and leaders of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, pastors, elders and kindergarten teachers in Iraqi churches, refugees from Iraq who had been in Syria, refugees from Syria now in Lebanon. Ordinary people living ordinary lives in extraordinary times, loving God in the act of loving their neighbors.

Mary Mikhael, past president of the seminary in Beirut

Mary Mikhael, past president of the seminary in Beirut

And even as a shadow is cast over them right now, just like the moon was trying to blot out the brilliance of the sun last night, we know from the the scripture, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guard me safely through the night…and let me see the morning light.



You can help to bring hope

20141010 map of middle eastYou can help the church in the Middle East to keep bringing hope and healing to those suffering from war and oppression.

Please watch the video, and if you are moved, please donate through one of the links below which are special accounts through my church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

Thank you. God bless you. May he hear our prayers for peace.

ECOs in World Mission designated for partner churches:

Iraq – Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in Iraq:

Syria – Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon:

Gaza – Ahli Arab Hospital (Episcopalian Church of the Holy Land):

Hope Came Down

Dancing in circles photo

Hope came down and pitched its tent, in our midst, went where we went. Hope came down for you and me, hope came down and we could see, with the longing of our hearts…Hope came down.

Since the summer of 2000, when I made my first trip as a member of a short-term mission team from West Hills Church to Germany, I have been humbled to travel almost every year in this capacity. I have made three trips to Germany, two to Cameroon, two to the Czech Republic, one to North Omaha and I have also been part of the South Omaha VBS team at Iglesia el Buen Pastor four times. I have had my heart expanded in so many ways by these travels and adventures with the living Christ. I have met the family of God – our family! – in all these varied geographic locations.

Four years ago I met Marilyn Borst from the Outreach Foundation. In these past four, short years, I have been to Lebanon and Syria three times and Iraq three times. Never in my wildest imaginings (and mine can be pretty wild) did I ever think I would be walking with the church in the Middle East. But as it says in Jeremiah 29:11 (a scripture I chose for my wedding service), “For I know the plans I have for you…”

God knows the plans he has for us. We just need to lean into them and trust him.

I have been blessed beyond abundance by these travels. I married a man who would also follow this call, Steve, who has been on many of those trips. Together we have welcomed three young German women into our home and family to experience life together as they ministered to our youth here at West Hills. We have seen a brother in Christ through the seminary in Cameroon: Joe Mbiy will be ordained this December in the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon. We have been blessed by our faithful brothers and sisters in the Czech Republic and have seen how they care for those with disabilities and addictions. We have been part of a communion service in Basrah, Iraq, where none had been held since the loss of their pastor. We have also been back to Basrah to participate in another communion service with their new pastor, a graduate of the seminary in Cairo that is supported by mission dollars from West Hills.

All these journeys have been meaningful, joyful, participatory and ground for spiritual growth.

But how do we give back?

Coming back home this past January from Lebanon and Syria, God gave me a vision. We had been to a refugee camp that hadn’t existed just eight months before in Zahle, Lebanon. It was a camp containing thousands of families who had fled from the war in Syria. It was actually one of TWO camps that hadn’t been there the year before. While in the camp, we were surrounded by the most delightful, joyful children. What did they have to be happy about? And yet they sang this song: “Yesterday we lived in a house, today we live in a tent. But tomorrow we will live in a house again.” They could see something we surely could not. The hope of a child, seeing not with their eyes, but with their hearts.

And that was the beginning of this vision. The vision was to make a music video that could be shared through social media, and in the sharing people would be moved to donate to the churches who are meeting the ever-increasing needs of people fleeing from wars and losing their homes, their places of worship and their livelihoods. In this instance, you won’t have to dump a bucket of ice water on your head to take the challenge.

I reached out to two very gifted people here at West Hills Church to help me with this vision. Mike Geiler ( took the words of a poem I wrote and crafted a beautiful song, Hope Came Down, and then had it professionally recorded and mastered. Arlo Grafton, a master at his craft of videography, took 67 images from my trips and put them to Mike’s music. The final video is now on YouTube and I hope it is shared widely by people like you. The vision will be fulfilled when people click on the links to donate funds to projects already set up through our denomination in support of the church’s work in Syria, Iraq and in Gaza in Israel.

ECOs in World Mission designated for partner churches:

Iraq – Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in Iraq:

Syria – Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon:

Gaza – Ahli Arab Hospital (Episcopalian Church of the Holy Land):

There were several scriptures guiding me in this project that were part of this vision. As I shared with Arlo in an email several weeks ago:

And when I came home and looked at the pictures I saw the dear smiling faces of the clergy who were with us. The pastors in that area have visited the camps many, many times, carrying the love and the joy and the hope of Jesus into a place where he is so desperately needed. And I couldn’t help but think of the scripture I had heard so often from John 1:14, “The word was made flesh and dwelled among us,” or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “he moved into the neighborhood.” And I of course remember George phrasing it like this: “He pitched his tent with us.” His glory – his shekinah – his tent was right in the middle of ours. There it is: Hope came down.

And those children were hopeful! And the passage from Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is being sure of what you hope for, certain of what you do not see.” And those kids were singing that tomorrow they would be in their homes again. I couldn’t see it, but they could! That is a hope-filled faith and that is what I want to honor with this video.

From the beginning of the church, you can discern this from some of Paul’s letters, the churches in Asia that he had started, the church in Rome even, were collecting money for the church in Jerusalem which was so oppressed. This video seems like a 21st century way to get the word out to the churches that our brothers and sisters in distant lands are suffering and they are not letting their suffering get in the way of reaching out with the love of Christ to care for those who are suffering alongside them. This video is an appeal for help! And help is so desperately needed. There are millions of refugees and internally displaced people in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Gaza in Israel.

And that is the story. That is what happens when you follow the call to walk with the living Christ. As it says in Joel 2:28 “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters. Your old men will dream, your young men will see visions. I’ll even pour out my Spirit on the servants, men and women both.” (The Message) And sometimes even your old women, like me, will see visions.

I have indeed. Hope came down.

A Bob Ross kind of day

trees1I miss Bob Ross. I used to watch him paint a new painting in thirty minutes every Saturday on PBS. The list of colors of his paint would scroll across the bottom of the screen: titanium white, phthalo green, phthalo blue, prussian blue, midnight black, dark sienna, Van Dyke brown, alizarin crimson, sap green, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, Indian yellow, bright red. Such exotic names. Such living colors.

Remember? He would just take a blank canvas and start brushing color on it. Soon there would be happy clouds, evergreen forests, snow-capped mountains, bubbling streams, wind-tossed waves on lakes or oceans…and over here lives a happy little squirrel.

Week after week, he would create a full landscape, narrating a story about a cabin or a farmhouse, and completely draw you in. It was total entrancement for thirty minutes. It was so peaceful in that world he created. I miss that.

So today I took a thirty-minute walk in my neighborhood on a Bob Ross kind of day. I just needed to stretch my legs and soak in the crispness of a picture perfect autumn day in midtown Omaha. I headed out the door, turned left on Webster Street, walked up the hill and down to J. E. George Blvd., turned south toward Underwood, pushed the button so the light would change and I could cross Underwood safely to walk down the west side of Memorial Park, then turn east to head to Happy Hollow Blvd. and walk by the creek north to home. It was just about thirty minutes.

A sweet yellow Labrador retriever was resting on the phthalo green lawn of a titanium white house behind its midnight black iron fence. He didn’t respond to my “Hi Pup!” or my hand claps, but he seemed happy to be soaking up the sun in his restful position.

On I walked past a neighborhood family of young boys tossing a Van Dyke brown football back and forth with their dad. Perhaps the Huskers should come over to this neighborhood to recruit, because those two caught every pass thrown their way. There was no wind to alter the arc of those effortless passes that dad threw.

Continuing on my journey, I passed a sweet older couple walking a puffball of a dog that could only have been made by a blend of ochre and brown off Bob’s palette. He had the happiest expression on his face and was a size that could have fit in Bob’s shirt pocket like that little ground squirrel he featured once in a while.

Down the walk I went and came across a mom with two little girls whose hair was styled in the bob cut so popular when me and my sisters were young. I couldn’t not comment about how cute they were and it made their mom smile. Ebony was the color of those bob cuts.

I turned off the walk a bit farther down to walk through the grass still green with the rains we have had. I was attracted by the crimson red crabapples on a grove of trees and wondered if they were the ones I needed to make my jelly. Alas, they were not. But as I left their company I came across the neighboring grove of honey locusts whose leaves were changing already to the ochres and Indian yellows of fall.

And walking on through an aromatic stand of evergreens which made me think of Christmas trees, I trailed through the faded glory of cannas already touched by frost. Their guardian ranks of marigolds and salvia were still glorious in the yellows and oranges and reds and violets that carry us through the summer. Soon they will all be gone, but on this day they blazed in the glory of the sun.

And just like Bob could always spin the tale of someone who lived in that wood or on that farm, as I crossed the south end of the park and looked up toward the stark white of the memorial on the top of the hill, I spied a wedding party posing for photos on the curve of the walk up the hill. There was the white of a beautiful dress in the shadow of the trees, surrounded by the dark suits of gentlemen and the dark purple dresses of the ladies. What a beautiful day for a wedding! I think that’s what Bob Ross would have seen as he brushed those colors on the canvas.

And walking back up the trail toward home on Happy Hollow, I listened to the last of the cicada song, much weaker now than the loud symphony they give us in the summer. And I heard the sound of younger and fitter steps coming up behind me so I moved over to let the jogger go by, not changing my pace. I’m sure I saw and heard much more than him as his earbuds were in and his eyes were dead forward. Too bad for him! He missed the young boys who were playing down by the culvert in the creek streaming slowly by down in the hollow. He also missed the bright yellow flowers blooming on the vine that covered the dull green fence that is there to keep us from tumbling down the engineered terraces along the walk. He missed seeing the little holes the squirrels had dug to bury acorns and such other delicacies that get them through the winter.

Just like the thirty minutes I used to spend with Bob Ross, thirty minutes walking in the neighborhood today invited me into a story of beauty in a small space. In a very large world, Omaha is a small place. In the urban sprawl of Omaha, Dundee-Memorial Park is just a corner. But in my corner of the world today was a phthalo blue sky with happy cirrus clouds and Indian yellow leaves and bright red crabapples and every other color on that list.

It was a Bob Ross kind of day and for thirty minutes, there was peace and it was mine.


Tree Hugging

trees3Several weeks ago I blogged about a tree in our backyard on Happy Hollow. It is scheduled to be removed due to rot on the inside from an injury it sustained in a storm several years ago. But today, it is still standing in the backyard, wearing its autumnal coat of oranges and reds, gloriously majestic for now at least. I will miss it when it’s gone…and then we will plant another. Hopefully it will grow into the beauty that its predecessor has been.

I love trees and I guess as someone who appreciates the creation around me in the environment I live in, that makes me a tree hugger. That’s what they called us when we were in the Ecology Club at Westside High. We wore the moniker proudly and tried to live into its definition. We did curbside recycling before our city had that program, and we also collected Christmas trees in early January so they could be recycled into wildlife habitat. We loved Fontenelle Forest and we could sing the Woodsy Owl song!

But it’s trees I want to talk about today.

When we were young in Omaha in the 1960s, the American elm tree was everywhere. Oh my gosh! You could drive down streets under a canopy of elms that bordered both sides. Tall and mighty, they formed this dark green roof overhead. We even used to call 90th Street the “dark street” because driving it down it from Pacific to Center the light from the sun could not penetrate the thick covering of elm leaves above. It was like entering a mysterious new world instead of driving down a residential street in suburban Omaha. All over Omaha, the streets were like this.

And then the dreaded Dutch elm beetle invaded and over the course of several years, most of those elms were cut down. In our yard alone on 105th Street, we lost seven American elm trees. It was so sad. I can still hear the chainsaws and smell the aroma of those trees as they were mown down. Years later, they widened 90th Street to four lanes, a job made easier because those ranks of elms on the west and east sides were all gone. It was no longer the mysterious dark street, just twelve blocks to speed through in the neighborhood. You can still find an elm tree in Omaha, a lonely sentinel and reminder about what our streets looked like half a century ago.

Besides those elms in the backyard we had two other special trees. Well, they were special to us! To Daddy they were just messy: a weeping willow that dropped sap on the windshield of his car, which was too big for the garage, and a mulberry in the back corner of the yard. Well, you know what mulberry trees drop.

Oh, but those trees! They were both climbing trees! We even had wooden rungs nailed up the trunk of the willow so we could climb into a sort of fort. Underneath the tree was just as good. That’s where the rabbit hutches were for awhile, and of course the sandbox built out of an old semi-trailer tire. Endless hours were spent under that tree creating villages with roadways for our Matchbox cars. That old willow shaded our recreational endeavors, on summer days when kids used to play outside. The tender, swaying, weeping branches always caused the sun that did shine through them to make interesting and moving patterns where we were playing.

The mulberry was in the back corner on the fenceline of our neighbor’s yard. We would get a boost off the top of the fence to get to the lowest branch so we could hoist ourselves up there. For whatever reason, the view not just of the neighborhood, but of life in general was just better from the branches of that tree. We had some tough growing up years with the evil step-mother whom you know from Grimms’ fairy tales, and life in those years was just better up in that tree. Besides, the mulberries were tasty!

Both the willow and the mulberry came down eventually, just like the elms.

When I was in sixth grade, our school system gave every family a Russian olive tree to plant in their yards for Arbor Day, a tree-planting holiday started right here in Nebraska. I guess the school systems continued this for many years because Russian olive trees were soon to be seen all over the city. They too, were eventually cut down. Not pretty enough I guess for modern suburban dwellers who like less messy trees. The one in our yard that we planted back in 1971 was the last one in our neighborhood to go. Not because it was ugly or messy, but it just finally died.

trees5I love the trees. I’m a tree hugger, like I said. And these beautiful fall days I am lucky enough to drive home through one of the most beautiful places in Omaha, Elmwood Park. Yes, it’s named for trees you can no longer find there, but there are others to take their place, and the most beautiful right now are the maples like the one soon to be removed from my backyard. There is a line of four of them about midway through the park’s upper road that make a wave of color. One starts changing, then the one next to it, and so on down the line. I have seen cars pull over to take their photo. That’s what I did today for this blog! But I have also seen families there having their pictures taken under the glorious covering of their fall colors. Years from now they will pull out those pictures, their children now grown and remember the beauty of the trees in the fall.

I will have my photos of those trees, too, I guess. But the pictures I remember of special trees – trees worth hugging! – are only found when I close my eyes. They are not just visual memories either. There are sounds of the wind in their branches. There are the smells of their blossoms in the spring. There are the feelings of their leaves brushing my face and the bark under my fingers as I climb. There are the taste of sweet berries and tart crabapples.

God bless the trees! I am so grateful for their beauty at all times, but especially in this season when their colors are as bright as the flowers in spring. They lift my spirits on any day at anytime, but I especially love the way they light my way home from church, with their upper leaves blazing like the tops of candles.

trees4The elms may not spread their arches over the streets anymore, but the maples do. So as I drive home this afternoon, my imagination will take me back to the mysterious roads we use to travel as children and be grateful that I live in the home of Arbor Day. Someone thought to replant that which had been struck down and our tree-climbing days of youth go on!

I think I’m going to hug that tree in the backyard one more time…

St. John and the sloppy joes

Bubbling tomato jamWe have a marvelous once-a-month ministry at our church that Jana and I have participated in for many years. We make four pounds of sloppy joes and bring them along with two packages of hamburger buns to the church and add them to the other four-pound bags in the freezer. Once a month they are delivered to the Siena Francis House, a shelter for the homeless in the north downtown district of Omaha.

The ministry began out of a need recognized by a member of our congregation after watching the news back in the 1980s. It seems that many of our homeless folks in Omaha were gathering at a downtown park because the city had moved the Open Door Mission out of the area to make way for a new office for the Chamber of Commerce. How politic. Let’s hide the less-than-photogenic denizens of our city to whitewash the problems and paint the real nice Chamber of Commerce picture for the outside to see.

I am sure it has happened in other places, but I live here. It was hurtful.

Not only did they move the mission away from where these citizens lived (under bridges, in alleys) and ate, they moved it out by the airport, which is fine if you have a means of conveyance to get there. Being as they were homeless, they didn’t have garages either. Or what we generally put there: vehicles.

So they gathered at the park and Shirley (our member) and other church ladies just like her started a sandwich ministry. They would make sandwiches and take them down to the park in downtown Omaha, across the street from the Chamber of Commerce, and feed the hungry as Jesus tells us to. Until someone put a halt to this by providing a bus for the mission to transport people there for meals, this was a weekly occurrence.

Later on, the ministry evolved to the sandwich ministry that our church took part in once a month, as we shared the opportunity to serve with other churches. Our sloppy joes – for that is the sandwich we made – went to the Dorothy Day House until it closed, and now we take them to the Siena Francis House.

Jana and I have been doing this for at least twenty years. I can’t remember when we started, but I know why we started. Participating in a cause like Bread for the World, working toward policies in our country and others that will end hunger in our lifetime is heady and time-consuming, long-term work. Doing the practical work of feeding actual people is much more immediate, and making sloppy joes was our way of participating. Jana used to be able to make the sloppy joes by herself while I was the vehicle for transporting them to the church. Now I do the whole thing.

But Jana is still my reminder! “Julie, can we get the stuff to make sloppy joes this week?” And we do, on the Saturday before the third Thursday of every month.

Except for this week. We were at church Friday night and all day Saturday for the women’s retreat. It was a good respite and filled with good teaching and fellowship. But it was also the Saturday when we should have gotten the sloppy joe stuff. I forgot to tell Steve to pick it up at the grocery store. And Jana forgot too…

…until today.

I got this email from her earlier this morning:

could you manage to buy some ready-made sloppy joes and get the buns…?

She knew it was too late to make them, because we are at church tonight and they need to be here frozen in the morning. But could I buy some ready made? I responded, “I will do my best,” not knowing how this would be possible. But I said I would, so I had to. Really, I had to. Jana had done her part, after all…

So I just got back from the grocery store. They have no ready made sloppy joes in the deli, in the little restaurant section, not even in the frozen aisle where you can buy ready made gourmet pizza and bacon wrapped shrimp, along with every conceivable flavor of chicken wings. They’ve got Swedish meatballs and Italian meatballs and even premade hamburgers and cheeseburgers. But they do not have frozen sloppy joes. Rats. Where is convenience when you really need it?!

And so I started to wander back over to the deli to see if I could order four pounds of sloppy joes to be picked up later when we left church after 8:00 p.m. and I ran into…St. John.

I kid you not, St. John was in the grocery store, just like Jesus walks into church sometimes. In this case it was my property coordinator here at West Hills Church, whose actual name is John Good. (I really think his middle name is “the”: John the Good, because he is so GOOD!)

He greeted me like he always does here at church, “Hello boss lady.” He thought I was following him as his supervisor to see what he was up to. He is always up to good; there is no reason to follow him and confirm what I already know.

“What are you doing here, boss lady? Following me?” I assured him that was not the case. I was feebly trying to accomplish the one thing my sister wanted this week: to feed the hungry. We had forgotten the sloppy joes until this morning and I was on my way to the deli to see if I could order some.

“I can make them for you, ” he said.

I said, “You can?!”

He is married now but his answer to me at that question was, “You learn a thing or two when you’ve been a single dad for as long as I was.”

There it is again. Humble service. It’s the hallmark of what St. John the Good does every day for the people who come into our church, whether he knows them or not. It is constant. It is freely offered. It is saintly. Now there is a picture that the Chamber of Commerce would be proud of.

And I expect that the sloppy joes will taste better this month at the Siena Francis House because they will be anointed by St. John the Good.

Oh yes, they will be good.

Take away the stone…let him go

It’s a Saturday morning here in Omaha at West Hills Church. We have welcomed back our dear friend Pam Moore to lead our women’s retreat called “Beautiful Chaos.” It is so good to hear her and see her and be reminded of the gifted speaker and teacher she is. And, oh! How she loves Jesus.

That’s why I am here. To see and hear Pam. My Saturdays are precious to me as the other six days of the week I am here at church. I love to sleep in and be lazy and enjoy my sweet Steve. So I am here under duress, but as usual, God had other things in mind!

And Pam’s teaching this morning was on the gospel of John in chapter 11 about the raising of Lazarus. It’s a story I have heard and read many times. It is so cool! Jesus raises his friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, from the dead. He was dead. In the tomb for four days. And Jesus tells him to come out. And he does. Isn’t that cool?! He was dead and now he is alive.

In every movie about this, it’s a pretty dramatic presentation. A DEAD MAN WALKS OUT OF HIS TOMB. Where have you ever seen that except for in the movies? I haven’t. I wanted it for my mom when I was seven. I even prayed so hard! “God, if you can bring your own son back after three days, you can bring my mom back, too.” If I had known the story about Lazarus when I was seven, I would have given him one extra day in my prayer. That was my theology at seven.

Today, Pam gave me a completely different perspective on this story and I am so grateful!

First of all there is this, John 11:35, the shortest sentence in the bible: Jesus wept. And the next one explains this very short but beautiful text: “Then the Jews said, ‘See, how he loved him!'”

Jesus loved Lazarus and was grieved at his death. Jesus loved him. Jesus loves us. Jesus loves me. He grieves with Mary and Martha, he grieves with us, he grieves with me. In the bosom of his divine humanity, he grieves at our messes, our losses, our sufferings. He was weeping with snot dripping out of his nose just like me as I prayed that prayer as a seven-year old whose mother was dead.

That is the God who walks with me and walks with you.

But the other thing that Pam gave me today about this passage which I instantly lit up about was this: He asks us to join him in this setting free.

In verse 39 he tells Mary and Martha and the gathered community of mourners, “Take away the stone.” They are to take the covering from the tomb. Jesus is not using his divine power to levitate that heavy plug out of that hole. “Take away the stone.” He wants us in this moment, helping, believing that he can do this.

And they do, and out Lazarus comes in that God-blessed, made-for-the-movie moment of a dead man walking out of his grave. Did I mention he had been then for four days?

And then there is this in the last half of verse 44: “Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

You – community of believers, family of man, church of God – join me in this ministry of healing and freedom and resurrection. Free this man. Come to his side and take away the stinky four-day old graveclothes and help me set him free.

That is the calling of the church. That was explained to me in a very profound way today by a woman who has taught me so much about grieving in public in the loss of her husband and my pastor and mentor, George. And she did it with grace and beauty and humor.

Assis Ramsey from the Presbyterian church in Zahle, Lebanon, ministers to the children in a refugee camp in May, 2013.

Assis Ramsey from the Presbyterian church in Zahle, Lebanon, ministers to the children in a refugee camp in May, 2013.

But then this picture came to my mind: this story is being lived out daily by the church in the Middle East and I have been so privileged to see it from a front row seat.

In Syria and Lebanon and Iraq, the people are grieving. Oh my Lord, can you imagine the losses? Their homes are blown apart by mortars. Their sons are marching off to war and dying by the thousands. Their churches and mosques are targets of people who hate them. Then, if they don’t leave their broken homes or convert to an ideology of evil and death, they are murdered on the spot, with a bullet to the head or a knife that severs their heads from their bodies. I cannot imagine the horror they live with, yet I have seen the result.

Assis Fadi, moderator of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon encourages the children to sing and dance at an even larger refugee camp near Zahle, Lebanon, in January, 2014.

Assis Fadi, moderator of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon encourages the children to sing and dance at an even larger refugee camp near Zahle, Lebanon, in January, 2014.

And God is in the midst of their grief and sorrow, weeping with them. How could he not?

And yet. And yet. In this time of grief, he asks, “Do you believe that I can do this?”

Roll the stone away. Take off the graveclothes. Find a purpose in your community with me in your midst.

And they do all of this. The church that I have been privileged to walk with in the last four years is walking in the refugee camps housing thousands of their neighbors, forced from them homes. They are bringing medicine and food and joy and love and healing. They are opening up their homes and their churches to welcome those forced from their own homes. They are using their own scarce resources to share with those who have nothing left. They are bringing beauty from ashes. They are God’s presence in the chaos of war.

And I believe that God can do this. I believe when his community of people come together to move the stones away from the tombs of the oppressed and strip off the graveclothes that bind them to the prisons of refugee camps, showing the love of neighbor to neighbor, that this will bring about a lasting peace, a peace that is not found at the end of a gun or that falls from the sky in the form of laser-guided missiles.

God weeps with us. But that is not the end of the story. The end of the story comes when we believe what he says and join together with him to call forth life from death.

Let us roll the stone away…together.



I had a great email discussion this week with some of my younger colleagues here at West Hills. They are all so smart! So passionate! So willing to discuss and wrestle… Their parents should be proud and I know they are.

It started with this blog post about liturgy:

This was the part that really resonated with me:

…the liturgy was more of a timeless aspect of our worship. As a kid and then teen, I could feel the prayers, the liturgical songs, the actions of standing, sitting, praying, responding, receiving were starting to ingrain themselves in my very body. I remember myself starting to set the hymnbook down more and more. I would simply pray or sing or respond. The phrases like “And also with you” or “Thanks be to God” or “Amen” started to come naturally and unbidden.

The actions, the words, the songs…ingrained in my very body. Remembered.

This was my response in one part of our conversation about liturgy:

I think the reason I sent the blog out originally was because of the part that resonated with me most: the act of liturgy as remembering. I think we forget sometimes that the work of the people or for the people was handed down by real people who lived so long ago and set the rhythm in motion that we would remember who it was that brought us there in the first place. That we remember that the Gloria was sung by the angels to the only one worthy of it. That the bread and the cup were first lifted by the one who gave his life for us. That when we say the Lord’s Prayer it is in the words he taught to those listening to what he had to say. That when we arise and declare what we believe in the Apostles’ Creed, it is the work of ancient generations hammering out what do we believe anyway.

So remembering is important to me so we can pass it on to others, just as it was passed on to us.

I surround myself with touchstones of memory, not gathered to me for the importance of having stuff, but important because of what is attached to them: remembrances of real people and places that God has put in my path.

20141010 rosaryIn my purse is this old rosary. It’s there next to a glow-in-the-dark plastic statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I need the rosary when I attend the rosary service of dear people who are Roman Catholic. It reminds me of the rosary we had when my own mother died. It even takes me back to grade school – first and second – at Christ the King here in Omaha. One service in the gym was led by Father Hupp and a human chain of rosary beads in the form of the altar boys and others. Father carried the big crucifix and they all followed behind him as we recited the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the decades of Hail Marys, the joyful mysteries of Christ. The rhythm of that celebration is ingrained in my body. I don’t need the rosary to count; I can do that with the motion of my hands in the praying. But the rosary itself in my purse with the plastic Mary helps me remember who passed that faith on to me and helped me grow in it.

I have a credenza full of the stuff of memories.

There are photos of my German daughters Fine and Johanna and Kathe who remind me that young people still come20141010 inside credenza to faith and want to share it, even in another language!

There is my West Hills Holy Cow award from Kathy Leach, who loved our group portrayal of the Little Sisters of Perpetual Responsibility at a Super Supper several years ago. It reminds me that others love the joy of worship with laughter.

There is my reminder from Jody Filipi to “SING: make music with your hearts to the Lord,” from Ephesians chapter 5. If there is one thing I NEVER forget, it’s to sing.

There is the picture of the peace pole that George Moore took for me in the Holy Land. “May peace prevail on the earth.” That pole with a prayer reminded him of me, and now the picture reminds me of him and how he knew how much I long for peace.

There is a picture of me and my siblings with our dad at Easter, 2007. He stopped his dialysis the next day and went to be with mom and Jesus two weeks later. It is a reminder of how we all laughed and joked and ate a big dinner in celebration of life and then two weeks later, sat by his side together as he took his last breath in this life and was released from his earthly pain into an everlasting life.

20141010 credenza topThere is a framed poster from the church in Germany that represented their theme for that year, “Himmel und Erde werden vergehen. Meine Worte aber werden nicht vergehen.” (Mark 13:31) “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will never pass away.” It will not be forgotten. It will be remembered.

There are a number of other things up there from my travels in the Middle East. There is my Druze princess hat from Byblos in Lebanon. There is an acrylic plaque from the Middle East Council of Churches and a porcelain plate from the Sunday school in Damascus, Syria. The silly together with the sacred. They all remind me of names and faces of people dear to me, but even more dear to God.

20141010 map of middle eastAnd next to me, on my wall, is a map of the world. The reminder is that God’s people are everywhere. His family, my family, everywhere. And the ones who handed down this faith to me started right there in the middle. They are in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Egypt, in Palestine. Some of them still offer their worship – do their liturgy, their remembering – in languages that go back to Jesus.

And as I look at that map and watch the news, I remember that many of them are in great pain, undergoing a horrible time of trial, as they come face to face with war and death and evil. And I remember to pray.

And that is my liturgy, the ingraining in my body and heart, the remembering, the work of this person.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen.